Jeanette Epps, who was selected for the 20th NASA astronaut class in June 2009, gives a presentation at the Innovative Technologies Complex on Sept. 29.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
NASA astronaut emphasizes perseverance, courage
October 1, 2014Tweet
There’s no room for error when you’re flying in a Northrop T-38 Talon, the twin-engine supersonic jet trainer used by NASA to prepare astronauts for the rigors of space flight. Sitting in the backseat with a mask and helmet on, crammed in a tiny compartment, you’re forced to perform at a really high level. It’s scary, but Jeanette Epps was able to overcome her fear.
“I think fear is natural. Just because you’re afraid, doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” said Epps, a NASA astronaut. “And so I guess that’s how I see it. You should have a natural fear of certain things, especially of things that you haven’t done before, but once you’ve done them, you can cause the fear to evaporate.”
Epps talked about her experience flying in a T-38 and more at a public presentation held Sept. 29, at the Innovative Technologies Complex. She gave an overview of what it’s like to be an astronaut and answered questions from the audience. The event was sponsored by the Collegiate Science Technology Entry Program; Decker School of Nursing; Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation; Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Epps remembers being a student and wondering what it would take to become an astronaut – it’s something she’d thought about since she was 9 years old. She hopes that her presentations can help would-be astronauts picture themselves in the position.
“One thing that I like to do is show people the training that I’ve done,” Epps said. “And I think when students see me doing those things … they can kind of visualize themselves doing that as well.”
After graduating with a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, Epps worked in research at the Ford Motor Company, then as a research scientist at the CIA. After seven years at the CIA, a friend called her up and told her that NASA was accepting applications for the astronaut corps.
“I just said, ‘I’m just going to throw caution to the wind and go ahead and apply,’” Epps said.
Along with 13 others, Epps was selected for the 20th NASA astronaut class in June 2009. She credited her mother, who passed away just five days after she was selected, with inspiring her to pursue her dream.
“One of the big mottos that she had was that, if you put the time and effort into anything, you can learn it. It may take a little longer, but if you put the time and effort in, you’ll eventually get it,” Epps said.
Epps underwent intense training in the corps. She traveled to Hawaii to look at lava flows, performed a lot of field medical training, developed a better understanding of robotics and learned how to speak Russian, a necessity for living aboard the International Space Station. The most challenging part of her training, Epps said, was learning how to spacewalk in a 300-pound suit.
“It’s extremely physical,” Epps said. “You’re wearing the suit for six hours. Just getting suited up is a challenge. But you make it through and after a while it becomes one of the normal things you do.”
On top of learning how to cope with physical stress, Epps learned how to live with a group of people under harsh circumstances — trekking in and out of Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah, for 10 days, with no showers and just one tent to share between them.
“You really get to know your colleagues extremely well,” Epps said. “Once you do that, you get to know yourself. You can explain yourself to other people better. … You want to be able to get along with basically anyone on your mission.”
Epps qualified as an astronaut in 2011, and on July 21, served as an aquanaut aboard the Aquarius underwater laboratory during the NEEMO 18 undersea exploration mission that lasted nine days. The mission simulated what it would be like to be on an asteroid.
Competition is fierce for a spot in the astronaut corps — there were 6,000 applications for the 2013 NASA astronaut class alone. Epps encourages those interested in being an astronaut to do what they love first and then apply to the corps.
“Make your career great, do the best things that you can and apply every time there’s a call for an astronaut class,” Epps said. “You’ll never know what will happen.”